Friday, 8 February 2008

**India** Part Three /...Kaleidoscope rivers \

Namaste (traditional Indian greeting translates to 'the divinity in me recognises the divinity in you')

It's me again. Catching up with the news of my travels...I'm really far behind now with the story having left Lynn and I on a train on New Year's Eve. So much has happened but rest assured I am well and loving every moment. So here's some more words that might or might not make sense.

The train ride to the beach was uneventful apart from being woken by the ticket inspector to let someone else into our carriage which displeased us ladies as we thought we had booked it for sole use. It's impossible to rely too much on any information here as I keep finding out and I should have learned by now but it's always coming back to bite me as I look into apparently earnest honest faces telling me blatant untruths. I fall for it every time.

Arriving like blinking newborns into the early morning sun (healthy and energetic and full of positive thoughts remember?) onto the railway platform we were faced with the bizarre sight of hundreds of people dressed all in the same colour. Yellow! Everywhere we looked, saris and suits and dresses and children too. Lemon yellow, egg yoke yellow, custard yellow, newborn chick yellow... There were hordes of arrivals for an ashram ceremony (ashram-a place of spiritual retreat) and I think the devotees wore yellow as part of a ceremony there.

Lynn and I had been drooling and dreaming about breakfast for half the night as we had come from the ration retreat and we were just so excited about poached eggs for breakfast. We dumped our luggage and sped to the beach cafes to fulfill our fantasies and all was well again. Toast, poached eggs and coffee. Simple fare made all the more divine by the previous two weeks abstinence. 

It was New Years Eve and we were looking forward to maybe a beach party or a gathering of some kind but it turned out to be neither. We walked along the cliff top after a fish supper and ran into a huge crowd gathered around a group of powerful drummers. We found ourselves in the middle of a pressing crowd of stomping, chanting, clapping men. Realising we seemed to be the only two girls in this scrum we decided to retreat which was really hard work. In typically English fashion I didn't want to appear rude by not joining in the 'fun' but at the same time I was feeling unnerved. We were surrounded, the smell of beer and bodies was overpowering and the men were closing in. Imagine a whirling dream/nightmare sequence in a film...faces looming out of the crush of dance crazed bodies. Lynn and I made a run for it into a restaurant and managed to hide away in a seated area. Everyone was just so over excited and the normal placid well behaved Indian men seemed to have thrown caution to the wind for one night only. We continued to be feted by young bucks who were all supposedly Bollywood producers, actors or cameramen. It might impress the young Indian girls but two old timers like Lynn and myself were not impressed. We made our excuses (yes, we'll be back later, we have to meet some friends blah blah etc etc) and we left. 10.30 pm on New Years Eve and we locked ourselves into our beach hut and decided to bed down for the night. At midnight the noise and shouting and drumming seemed to reach a crescendo. Lynn and I both woke up and wished each other a happy new year. I remarked that it sounded as though they were preparing to eat somebody out there. The noise, fire crackers and tribal chanting sounded ominous, not jolly at all. 

The next day, 1st January 2008 saw Lynn and I doing an 8am yoga practise and we felt like we were the only people left in the world. India had become serene with the first morning of a new year. We later read newspaper reports of assaults and harassment and that New Years Eve in India dictates no police leave and extra reinforcements bussed in.(extra reinforcements also means that the batons the police use to whack people with just get bigger) Indian men see New Years Eve as their one night to party like it's 1999 and all hell lets loose. The women and families stay home and all the single men gather at beach resorts in droves. If only we had known...I'm glad we went to bed and it felt instinctively right to put ourselves in a safe place. The rum remained untouched for another occasion, we were just so yogic and you all thought we would succumb...

Following one's instinct is a good thing to do in India. You certainly need your wits about you at all times. I feel exhausted after visits to towns where the only rules of traffic are that there are no rules and crossing a road or hiring a rickshaw are risky ventures. You have to look and listen and continually be aware  of everything. Reversing buses do not sound horns, no vehicles ever seem to indicate, the holy cows sleep in the middle of lanes of traffic on roundabouts. A cross section of traffic might consist of several heavily laden buses pouring black exhaust and numerous helpful back seat drivers hanging from doors and windows, thirty auto-rickshaws, sixty motorbikes carrying more people and children than they are designed for, cows, dogs, beggars, children, oxen pulling carts vegetable and fruit handcarts and the odd car. And in and out of all this chaos pedestrians wander. It makes the M25 look like a futuristic slice of slick action. The newspapers here report traffic accidents as 'mishaps'. A 'mishap' here is a bus with it's front stoved in and 16 people killed in a fireball. And if any driver is involved in an accident, a crowd will gather to act as vigilantes. The accused (and who decides is anybody's guess) is beaten and then dragged to a police station. I don't think there is too much of a compensation culture here.

And a word about falling coconuts. They can kill you. And they fall all the time. With a dull bone cracking  thud. In front of me on a footpath, by the pool, whilst eating dinner. I've seen it too many times now and I make sure I never linger under a coconut tree. If I voice my concern at heavily laden trees I'm met with a shrug. My one man crusade for health and safety has got a long way to go.

Lynn and I had a few days beach respite. We lounged and swam, read some beautiful Indian literature and chatted, made some new beach friends, did useful good international relationship building work by teaching French boys how to swear, listened to the bitter war between the rival coconut and pineapple ladies, we set our watches by the chai lady who came every afternoon to sell us good hot sweet chai. (We managed to persuade her that half of a desert spoon of sugar was ample instead of her recommended three). We did yoga classes on the beach as the sun was setting and the dolphins were leaping. Standing in a tree posture (balancing one leg, hands held in prayer high above head) turning towards the setting sun, doing a shoulder stand on the sand so all the sand from my toes fell in my mouth, were some moments from my diary.

Lynn and I decided to take a houseboat trip through the backwater canals of Allepey in Kerala. We reluctantly left the beach (sigh, how easy to be a beach bum) and travelled by early morning train to Allepey where we stayed in a guest house and got taken to a 'secret beach'. An endless expanse of sand with no tourists and just a small fishing community. The sort of beach you would see in 'paradise' travel brochures. A few artfully placed coconut palms and a traditional hand painted viking style fishing boat silhouetted in the setting sun as it sailed to evening fish complete with singing fishermen and creatively arranged clouds. Sometimes perfection is handed on a platter and after so many beautiful sights and amazing vistas it can be easy to say...hmm yes it's just another beautiful beach. I was ready for something new. How awful that I was getting a bit bored with paradise? Sometimes the heat gets to me, that's my excuse.

Our houseboat can only be described as an intricate floating wicker basket, shaped like a shell. It was luxurious. Two bedrooms with windows opening onto the silky cool river, en-suite bathrooms, a huge dining area and a large expanse of deck to lounge on cushions and be transported down river. A kitchen and a chef, a captain and a competent steerer. The three staff were discreet as anything, we didn't feel that they were overly present but if we needed anything they were instantly there (must have trained at the Ritz). We had hired the boat and crew for 24 hours to show us the other side of life in Kerala. The river life unfolded before us like a sleepy watery dream sequence. Scene after scene of family life on the edge of water. Nut brown shiny babies being dunked and washed, pools of colour that flowered slowly into women in full sari dress rising from the dark water where they bathed fully clothed, their long dark hair as slick as wet pelts. Groups of women washing and sifting through baskets of shellfish as our boat continued to break through the bright green lakes of water hyacinth that covered the black deep. I was mesmerised by the washing slapped onto rocks to make it clean, the cooking, the eating, the lines of children walking to school or being bused in by rowing boats, the glide past rice fields with rows of coolie hats and umbrellas over bent double bodies. A slow moving shiny jewel of a kaleidoscope river. The day turned into evening and we moored at the river bank in our prehistoric beast of a basket boat. Dinner was served and we watched firefly's bright lights burn and dissolve against the silhouettes of palm trees. It was the Wind in the Willows and Swallows and Amazons rolled into one. Morning bought us cockerels and morning haze and the rising sun and village children demanding school pens. We walked around the fields whilst our breakfast was prepared and set sail again for the home run. The photography opportunities were endless and in the end I just wanted to be hypnotised by river life and lay back and enjoyed every last moment. 

Then it was Lynn's turn to return to the UK and I was alone in India. More exciting adventures were planned as I was about to fly to Goa to meet my friend who had rented an apartment for three months. More beaches, more gorgeous food, more mad dirty mesmerising haunting India.

But despite the diversity and the dirt and the pollution and the power cuts and the poverty and the dust and the craziness, I am just so in love with this country. The colours are incredible and the light is unique and completely arresting. There is a time of the day, approx 5pm, just as the sun starts to drop, that the light becomes electric and colours are heightened and seem to sing. A tiny purple flower dropped on the dust becomes saturated with colour and seems to leap out of the landscape with it's richness. Maybe it's the artist in me but other people notice it too. It's become my favourite time of day. 

Love and light from Loulou


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